The Story of Bentley
Bentley cars have been built alongside Rolls-Royce cars since 1933, but although they incorporate the same high standards of design and construction, they have distinctly different heritage and have attracted a distinctly different type of driver. It is wholly appropriate, therefore, that a section be devoted to not only telling the life story of Walter Own Bentley, the company founder, but to looking at the most notable cars to bear his name.
Walter Owen Bentley, affectionately known as 'W.O.', was born of middle class parents in 1888 and was the youngest of nine children. After a happy childhood and a short career at Clifton School, he went as a premium apprentice to the Great Northern Railway in Doncaster and then to London where he worked first for the railways and then for the National Cab Company before joining one of his brothers at the London agency for French DFP cars. In due course, the Bentley brothers bought out the DFP agency's original owners, renamed the business Bentley and Bentley and proceeded to build up the image of the DFP by racing it at Brooklands. At the outbreak of World War I, W.O. was commissioned into the Navy to work on aero engines for the Royal Naval Air Service. He soon made a name for himself by promising the benefits of aluminum alloy pistons to Ernest Hives, who was then in charge of experimental work at Rolls-Royce in Derby. He also became well known for designing two rotary aero engines (the BR1 and BR2) for which, after the war, he was awarded a gratuity of 8,000 bp.
Taking his gratuity back to London, W.O. set up an office in Conduit Street, enlisted the services of two engineers and turned his hand to designing and building a sporting car (something he has passionately wanted to do for many years). The first prototype took the road nine months later. A polished exhibition chassis was shown at the 1919 Motor Show. And, in 1921, a second prototype was raced at Brooklands. In 1922, after having overcome many problems associated with the supply of materials and components, W.O.'s car - called the Bentley 3 litre -was put into full production at a factory in Cricklewood. In the same year, a team of three racing Bentleys won the team prize in the Tourist Trophy Race. And, in 1923 and 1924, a Bentley car finished fourth and then first in the 24 hour sports car race at Le Mans.
During the next six years, teams of Bentleys were entered for each 24 hour race at Le Mans and, although the 1925 and 1926 teams failed to finish, Bentleys were first across the finish line in 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930 to set up a record of wins that was not equaled until the 1950's (by Jaguar) and not beaten until the 1960's (by Ferrari). Away from the race track, however, things back home at the Cricklewood factory were not going too well. The depression had so badly affected sales that, in 1931, the Bentley Company was forced into liquidation and taken over by Rolls-Royce Limited. The production of Bentley cars was subsequently moved to Derby and ultimately to Crewe in 1946.
Although the takeover by Rolls-Royce ended the story of the Bentley Company, it by no means ended the stories of the founder or his cars.
W.O. stayed with Rolls-Royce for some time to advise, test and generally help broaden the impact of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars on the world market. The Bentley car was meanwhile produced in greater volumes than ever before and, as well as continuing to enhance the image of its new builders, it has continually been looked upon as the ultimate of cars for dedicated members of the sporting fraternity.
W.O. Bentley MBE died in 1971.